We have just witnessed one of the most significant democratic moments in our recent history. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union has shaken up British politics irreversibly: we have a new Prime Minister and Cabinet; we are beginning the process of reimagining our international relationships; dealing with our decision to leave the EU will dominate politics and policy for years.

But the run-up to the referendum was significant too. People gathered in pubs and community centres across the country to discuss the vote. 6,000 people packed into the Wembley Arena to hear politicians debate the pros and cons of membership of EU. Half a million people registered to vote on the 7 June registration deadline alone.

Turnout was the highest for any UK-wide poll since 1992, and participation amongst young people saw a notable increase from the General Election just over a year before. The final result of 52-48 shows the contest was closely fought. If you needed evidence that engaging in democracy can make a difference, this was it.

The EU referendum is only the most recent of a few remarkable democratic moments over the past two years.

The Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 generated energy and enthusiasm on both sides of the debate, leading to turnout of 85 per cent and transforming politics north of the border.

The 2015 General Election campaign saw ‘surges’ of interest in challenger parties such as UKIP and the Greens but resulted in a majority Government few people expected. The post-Election resignation of Ed Miliband triggered the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and an associated increase in the party’s membership.

It’s hard to believe that two years ago the prevailing narrative was about democracy being broken and engagement with democratic processes in decline.

But there is much more to democracy than formal democratic processes. At Citizens Advice we see how issues of democracy and power play out in people’s lives day-to-day; registration and turnout levels may not reflect attitudes to and engagement with democracy more broadly. Many of the groups in society most likely to be democratically marginalised are overrepresented amongst people who come to our service. We exist to empower people – either by helping them to solve their problems or by campaigning for changes in policy or practice to ensure those problems don’t arise in the first place.

This is why in early 2015, in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum, with the General Election fast approaching, and while the Government was in the process of reforming the system for voter registration, we embarked on an ambitious programme of action and research on democratic engagement. Our aim was to ensure democracy worked for our clients in the most literal sense – that people were registered to vote – but also to explore whether people felt democratically empowered in their everyday lives.

Formal democratic engagement: reasons to be optimistic but vigilant

The past two years suggest a changing picture for formal democratic engagement. Before the Scottish independence referendum the narrative was one of declining participation in elections, decreasing support for parties, and record low levels of trust in Government and politicians. While trust remains low, the other indicators seem to be improving. 85 and 72 per cent of those registered voted in the Scottish independence and EU referendums respectively, and the last two general elections suggest early signs of an uptick in turnout. The dramatic increase in the Labour Party’s membership has shown that people are still willing to join mainstream political parties.

But participation is still skewed. More young people than expected may have voted in the EU referendum, but 18-24 year olds were still 26 percentage points less likely to vote than those 65 and over. As the Government moved from household to individual voter registration, the overall proportion of people eligible to vote on the electoral register has stayed broadly the same, but the levels for under 45s and those who have recently moved home have declined.

The role of civil society organisations in this context is key. As the great work from Bite the Ballot over the past few years has shown, it is possible to radically drive up registration and engagement through commitment, invention, and a network of trusted, local advocates and change makers.

The opportunity to ensure that our clients were not blocked from participating in elections led Citizens Advice to become involved in a pre-General Election campaign to drive up voter registration and democratic engagement. In 2015 the Government was in the process of moving from a system in which the ‘head of the household’ was responsible for ensuring that everyone in a property was registered to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) whereby each individual is responsible for registering themselves. It was likely that some people would fall off the electoral register in the transition between systems, and we were concerned those who did would be unable to vote in the General Election. Many of those groups already most likely to be missing from the electoral register – BME communities or private renters, for example – are also over-represented amongst Citizens Advice clients. We wanted to make sure that people had the opportunity to exercise their democratic right.